By Cynthia Leitich Smith
Who will visit your author or illustrator website?
Young readers may be your ultimate target audience, but educators—teachers, university professors of youth literature, and school librarians—are on the forefront of efforts to connect books and kids. What's more, they're using the Internet more than ever to help them make purchasing decisions.
"It is professional librarians and educators who are most likely to specifically seek out information about authors and illustrators and ways to use children’s books in educational and group settings," says author and former school librarian Toni Buzzeo. "Teachers and librarians continue to discover and value books, even when the books are no longer on the front list. They look for books that connect with writing and literature topics. They value books long after they’ve appeared in the publisher's catalog or a review source."
Buzzeo adds that librarians are likewise interested in paperbacks and that teachers sometimes seek paperbacks that can be purchased for full class study.
Many teachers build their own classroom libraries. Some use their own money. Others apply grants or donations from parents and other community members.
“We’ve heard reports that many media specialists can only buy books for the media center if these books are requested by teachers,” says publicist Vicki Palmquist of Winding Oak, an agency offering promotional services to authors and illustrators. “This puts a lot of book-buying power in the hands of teachers.”
Organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and the American Library Association (ALA), as well as their state and district affiliates, are highly influential.
Each publishes journals and websites that highlight authors, illustrators, and youth literature. In addition, they sponsor prestigious award programs, a few of which can prompt thousands—even hundreds of thousands—of sales.
Publicist Susan Raab of Raab Associates emphasizes a website is one way that authors and illustrators can raise their awareness in this market so their books have a better chance of being considered for awards.
As librarian Sharron L. McElmeel noted, “What could be more credible than the author’s own site providing information about a book?”
So, how do you make your website educator-friendly?
First, cover the basics. It’s better to start with a small, well-designed site and build thoughtfully over time than to upload several unorganized and incomplete pages.
Remember that this is your “professional face” to prospective readers. Kid-friendly and colorful may work. Cutesy and homemade won’t. When in doubt, err on the side of easy navigation, clean lines, and a limited color pallet.
Wait until the site is ready before uploading. “Under construction” signs suggest a lack of commitment. On the flip side, think twice before adding cutting edge technology. Freezing your visitors’ computer screens won’t help you (or your book) win any new readers.
One question is whether the focus of the site should be you or your debut book itself. Your byline is your brand. In today's crowded market, it will be enough of a challenge for readers to learn your name. When it comes to awareness-raising, you don't want to have to start over with each new title. If you’re planning a long-term career, first launch an author/illustrator site and then consider a book-specific site as a supplemental marketing tool.
For example, although we both have official author sites, my co-author Greg Leitich Smith and I decided to launch www.santa-knows.com to promote our picture book, Santa Knows (Scholastic Book Club). “The real marketing window for a holiday book is only open for a couple of months," he explains. “You have to look for any opportunity to maximize outreach.”
One exception to the author-site-first guideline would be in the case of a book series. Before you take on the job of launching a series tie-in site, however, check first to see if your publisher is willing to provide one for you.
Ideally, your site should launch at about the same time review copies are sent, usually six months prior to publication. Each new book listing should be added to the site on the same schedule. But it’s never too late to promote a book in print.
If budget allows, research the possibility of hiring a Web designer. The time saved and professional results may well be worth the money. A handful of designers even specialize in children’s-YA book creator sites. Ask established published authors and illustrators in your local writing community or on listservs for recommendations.
In the alternative, investigate pre-formatted options. The Authors Guild, for example, offers such sites to members for nominal fees.
"I chose the Authors Guild as host because they're inexpensive, it's a good organization, and they use a convenient template without bells and whistles that a simple-minded person such as I can update in seconds," says author Leda Schubert.
At a minimum, include a brief biography and your photograph along with basic publication information (cover art, title, author, illustrator, publisher, publication date, target audience age range, and ISBN). The cover art should be large enough to see clearly and, if possible, include a link to a larger, high-resolution image. Clear titles for each page, emphasizing the title and author/illustrator names, will help facilitate search engines. So will choosing your name as the URL.
“A name like supercoolwriter.com is not going to be as easily discovered by someone looking for you as cynthialeitichsmith.com,” says Anne Irza-Leggat, educational marketing supervisor at Candlewick Press.
Links to your publisher's website and/or the sites of your co-creators also are helpful and courteous.
Children’s-YA author Tanya Lee Stone offers a printer-friendly, comprehensible title list (PDF) of her books. She explains, “This was a suggestion I got from a librarian who commented that she’s surprised more authors don’t have their own complete list somewhere.”
Beyond the basics, offer visitors a taste of each book. Consider including an excerpt or interior illustration or link to these on your publisher's site, if provided.
Keep in mind that copyright law applies to the Internet. Authors should request permission from illustrators to highlight an example of their interior art. Illustrators should request authors’ permission to feature text excerpts.
Include award listings and review excerpts as they arise. Those from established print journals and/or blurbs from well-known authors or youth literature experts tend to be the most persuasive. Moreover, reviews, too, are subject to copyright and may not be wholly reproduced without permission. Use short quotes, and link to the source website.
Keeping this information up-to-date is critical. Interior links should always be in working order. The occasional exterior link may be unavoidable, but do your best to keep these current. New books should be added promptly. Such maintenance will preserve the site’s credibility and effectiveness as a promotional tool.
Offer teachers and school librarians reasons to share your book with students.
“If your book has good curricular tie-ins,” children’s author-poet Hope Vestergaard begins, “it pays to make that obvious on your site.”
Curriculum guides and related activities are especially sought after. These may include discussion questions and links to curriculum-related sites.
“I was a teacher,” explains young adult author Gail Giles, “and I know I’d pick up a book that has a teacher’s guide before a book that didn’t—if the books were essentially equal.”
Buzzeo adds, “Content standard based curriculum activities are much appreciated. Teachers do not have time to teach things simply for the fun of it anymore, in this age of standardized testing. Thoroughly familiarize yourself with national and state content standards before writing support material.” She recommends hiring a member of the educational, library, and children’s writing community to write guides.
Children’s author and reading expert Tracie Vaughn Zimmer not only is available for hire, she also posts the guides she writes to her own site, offering a “directory” that attracts visitors.
"Since most of my visitors are teachers," Vaughn explains, "I decided to appeal directly to them. Teachers are visual people (think bulletin boards and their wonderful, bright classrooms) so my directory is like a bulletin board with all the beautiful book covers speaking for themselves. I can feature new guides this way too."
She adds that dividing the books into age categories (along with one for poetry) makes the directory easier to navigate.
"I also don't add a lot of design to the guides themselves," Vaughn says, "so that teachers can use as little ink and paper necessary and just dive into activities and lessons with their students."
Teacher guides may be augmented by background on the crafting of the book.
“If authors and illustrators will provide information about process, research, and revision that applies to specific titles, they will help educators adopt them more readily,” Palmquist says.
Question-and-answer interviews might touch on such subjects as the author's and/or illustrator’s background in the field, inspiration behind the book, required research, challenges in bringing the story to life, the revision process, and themes.
This same information could also be shared in a story-behind-the-story article.
“I think the ‘How I Wrote It’ section is part of the educator’s extended experience for the class or reader,” says Giles. “I put it there to enhance the reading experience and make it really easy for the teacher to use the book in the classroom.”
Such Q&A interviews and articles may be further supplemented with bibliographies of books or other resources used for research in writing the story.
McElmeel encourages a global approach—making your focus wider than just yourself and your own book(s). “The ‘online presence’ should not be merely a sales site but rather should give more than take. The idea is to introduce you as an author/illustrator to more educators, and educators will find your site more often if you are gracious and include the titles and authors of other books that might be collaborative reading material.”
Consider the author's/illustrator's expertise and each book for special opportunities. These are limited only by the site creator's imagination.
Children’s non-fiction author Fred Bortz offers a set of “Ask Dr. Fred” questions that includes suggestions for asking good science questions. He says, “I get an average of 30 to 50 visitors per day who are wondering why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore.”
Author Rebecca Stead’s novel First Light (Wendy Lamb, 2007) takes place in Greenland. One character’s father researches climate change. Another character lives in an imagined world within the ice cap. “I wrote a Q&A fact sheet with input from scientists, interviewed a guy about what it’s really like to dig snow pits (and why), and posted links to educational sites," Stead says. "I also put in some bits of history/science that inspired me—about sled dogs, Volkswagen’s secret testing ground in Greenland, oak trees, etc.”
Readers’ theater adaptations of picture books, short stories, and chapters are popular with classroom groups. These work best with dialogue-heavy texts.
Coloring pages also are an option for illustrated books. Again, authors should obtain permission from illustrators before making art available for this purpose.
Children’s author-illustrator Katie Davis’ site includes activity sheets and games made with a program called Puzzlemaker. She says, "I can input specific words from my books, and they’ll get imported into a crossword puzzle.”
Recipes tend to attract traffic from teachers and parents alike.
“My ‘Hairy Toe Cookies’ recipe (PDF) is one of the biggest entry pages to my site…a lot from teachers at Halloween time,” says Shutta Crum, author of Who Took My Hairy Toe? (Albert Whitman, 2001).
Ultimately, your author site should be a reflection of your creative and professional self, a place to celebrate books and writing, and a way of reaching young readers and their champions. Educators are such heroes. Design and maintain your site to offer them all the encouragement and support they need to integrate your books into their schools.
This article was originally published in the The (21rst Annual Edition) 2009 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer's Digest, 2008).
The (22nd Annual Edition) 2010 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer's Digest, 2008) is now available. From the promotional copy: "The 2010 Children's Writer's & Illustrators Market is the most trusted source for children's publishing information, offering more than 700 listings for book publishers, agents, magazines, and art representatives. It also contains exclusive interviews with and articles by well-respected and award-winning authors, illustrators and publishing professionals as well as nuts-and-bolts how-to information. Includes exclusive access to online listings on www.WritersMarket.com."